Digital Essay

Lulu Larkin  

Professor Markle  

Freshman Seminar: Hip Hop  

December 15, 2019  

Rap: Stories of Purity, Passion, and Politics

 Hip Hop culture encompasses many elements, one of which is rap. The best way to truly comprehend and appreciate the significance of rap is to think of this genre as a story. With every chapter, the rich history of rap evolves, the culture surrounding rap develops, and with every artist, the sound changed. This genre is more than an expression but has transformed into a movement. Though the story of rap has a firm beginning, starting with an eighteen-year-old boy from the Bronx, there is still no end to be written as rap continues to write its tale, aspire and evolve.   

The 1970s were a dark time in the Bronx, a borough of New York City. High poverty rates, low household income, and racial unrest created tough neighborhoods and little hope for its youth. From these challenges, the need for unification and community emerged, alongside a greater need for hope for the future; what emerged was a voice for the people through the culture of the people. An 18-year-old boy from the Bronx invented the sound system called “the break,” which emphasized switching between songs on the breaks. This 18-year-old boy’s name is Clive Campbell, also known as DJ Kool Herc. Born in Jamaica and raised in New York, the start of the hip hop movement is primarily credited to DJ Kool Herc, without whom, this billion-dollar art form might just have been nonexistent. In the article “Hip-hop’s Message Was Simple” by The Guardian, they describe how Kool Herc came to the findings of hip-hop music: “DJ Kool Herc played to a couple of hundred fellow teenagers at a back-to-school party organized by his older sister… He kicked off with reggae, but the crowd didn’t respond that was their parents’ music – so he switched to tough, percussive funk records such as the aptly titled “It’s Just Begun” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch. The kids went wild.” (Guardian, 2016). But Herc did not settle there, he continued to rework his creation, and it was not until he met Grandmaster Flash where his beats were paired with rhymes, and rap was born. The black youth in the area immediately took to this art, and out of this scene, new artists emerged.  

Six years later, rap hit the radio stations. The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” entered the Billboard Hot 100 for twelve-week on October 13, 1979. This song did not reflect the culture of rap and the qualities it valued from its roots in New York City. The music video to “Rapper’s Delight” had disco-dancers and featured white people a paradox of what hip-hop culture holds. “Rapper’s Delight” was a commercial novelty song that had a mainstream appeal, but the lyrics lacked any sense of black culture rap held prior. Lacking in a political or cultural message, it was set to the hook of a disco track- Chic’s “Good Times” with a nonsense chorus: “Bang bang, the boogie to the boogie” and “Pop da pop pop, don’t you dare stop.” However, this song was the ticket that rap needed to cross over into the pop genre.

One of the most influential rap artists was Grandmaster Flash, who was able to reach the youth in black communities with his narrative-based and passionate lyrics. Grandmaster Flash wrote, “The Message” in 1982, exclaiming his reality of growing up in a low-income and low-resource neighborhood. He wrote about the struggle it takes to rise above the place you are born into; his lyrics “Neon King Kong standing on my back” is a play off the saying “I have a monkey on my back,” meaning a substance addiction one cannot control. His lyrics symbolize the substance struggles in the neighborhood that he has had to witness. Grandmaster Flash proceeds to rhyme, “A child is born with no state of mind, Blind to the ways of mankind” emphasizes the challenges of making their way in the world can make them feel defeated, especially in the Bronx to poor people of color during the late 1900s. As the art form grew, every artist brought different beats, experiences, and messages. In rap’s first decade, the music and its lyrics were an expression of hardship, and a means to connect with people through a change-driven lens.   

Rap quickly traveled from city to city and landed on the west coast, where a new style emerged with a bolder and bigger sound. West coast rap or ‘Gangster Rap’ was an assertive art form that employed lyrics that were narrative-driven and political, from highlighting police brutality and rejecting authority figures, to the inclusion of real-life experiences involving violence and drugs. Starting in the mid-80s, west coast rappers drew public criticism from police and politicians about the nature of their content, which they believed was negatively influencing youth in America. 1988 was a breakthrough year, sending stronger messages to the public from built-up frustration and hopelessness, NWA released “Straight Outta Compton,” and Ice-T wrote “Cop Killer,” provoking a political backlash. Spearheading viral activism, NWA, and Ice-T was not the first but instead created the most noise in America. Their blunt and accurate songs shocked the privileged white people by the contrast of disposition than before. 2Pac produced White Manz World in 1996: “Help me raise my Black nation, reparations are due, It’s true, caught up in this world I took advantage of you, So tell the babies how I love them, precious boys and girls, Born black in this white man’s world.” 2Pac, NWA, Ice-T, Grandmaster Flash, and other activists did not give up, in communicating the message of the suffering black people in America.   

The East Coast-West Coast rivalry between L.A.- based Death Row Records and New York-based Bad Boy Records, resulted in the deaths of rappers Tupac, in 1996, and Biggie Smalls, in 1997 (Vice, 2016).  The fallout changed the trajectory of the art form at the turn of the century. In the early 2000s, a new group of rappers, including 50 Cent, Eminem, and Jay Z, wrote songs undermining the messages previously produced that were advocating for political and social rights. Rap soon became a popular musical genre, listened to by many people including white suburban teenagers, referencing women nothing more than just objects for sex and promoting drugs to youth, taking away the importance of what the west coast rappers stood up for. With it, new criticism emerged about the messages it sent about black culture, many times influenced by record labels, executive producers, and the cut-throat nature of the music industry. This led the musical form to become less political and more misogynistic, as much of the music was produced to make as much money as possible. It erased the true historical and political meaning of what DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash started, not with the goals of making a change, inspiring hope, or including an activist mindset. Record labels, too, have different goals. Rather than exposure and respect for the artists and their creations, executives are more concerned with earning platinum albums and will morph some artists into what they believe consumers will buy, draining the authenticity and messages the artist aims to convey. As a result, many artists get caught up in this excessive desire for money, and they agree to sell whatever songs will garner them the most fame. The video below by “IamOther,” is made up of various street interviews searching for hip hop and rap stereotypes. There is such a global lack of knowledge about rap, its history, and the songs that are currently playing. The messaging and activism and the general culture inherent to the music has seemed to escape people. It is a bit maddening.

While large paychecks and platinum records are still playing a critical role in producing a specific type of rap music, artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino have created a new wave of mainstream rap music that focuses on political themes and lived experiences. It is almost as though hip-hop music has begun to pivot back to its roots, as the music and its lyrics seek to share essential perspectives during a time where the United States is experiencing a period of great political unrest, rising racial tension and divide, and a lack of civility. But in the mid-2010s, a return of political speech and issues affecting the black community brought by various artists, namely rapper Kendrick Lamar, hip-hop artist Childish Gambino, and even Eminem who has redirected his path of singing lyrics like:  “Get buzzed, get drunk, get crunked, get fucked up, Hit the strip club don’t forget once get your d*** rubbed…  get sucked, get wasted, shit faceted, Pasted, blasted, puke drink up… I’m lookin’ for a girl with a body and a sexy strut…  Shake that ass for me” to freestyling referencing political hardships, including calling out the US President to the point of getting questioned by the Secret Service. Secret Service Investigation

Spellbinding, Legendary, and Stunning are words used to describe Kendrick Lamar’s 2016 Grammy performance of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” off of his album, To Pimp A Butterfly. The production is filled with passion, conviction, and intense messaging to America about the black experience in America. From Lamar’s band playing from behind jail cells in the opening of the song to a chain gang, African dancers to the closing image of Compton within a map of Africa, his performance was embedded with powerful symbolism. It was a masterpiece and a compelling story that needed to be told through the mighty vehicle of rap. Some say it was the most significant performance the Grammys have seen in years. An interview collected by NPR, Kendrick further explained his lyrical expression and story behind ‘Alright’:Four hundred years ago, as slaves, we prayed and sung joyful songs to keep our heads level-headed with what was going on,” Lamar said. “Four hundred years later, we still need that music to heal. And I think that ‘Alright’ is one of those records that makes you feel good no matter what the times are.” (NPR, 2019)

Childish Gambino, also known as Donald Glover, also uses his rap as a means to convey a story of the black experience in America. In the video, This is America, he raps about the entertainment industry is serving as “distraction for the bigger issues at hand.” Symbolism abounds in the video – from the pants, Childish Gamino wears (from the Civil War – Confederate side), the references to Jim Crow laws, to the references of gun violence, the AME shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and Jim Crow laws, the video is a metaphorical walk down memory lane in American history. It is an ever-powerful portrayal of some of the worst of our country’s history and a reality we need to pay attention to, make amends to, and ensure we change our future. 

The evolution of Rap as an art form has changed considerably throughout the decades. In some respects, rap has maintained the roots; however, due to consumerism and the need to amass as much wealth as possible, there have been periods, including now, where rap has strayed from its purity and passion for telling a story. The worldwide phenomenon which has embraced rap as a severe form of art has created some beautiful music, but it has also created some garbage and controversy as well. There is hope on the horizon if artists like Childish Gambino and Kendrick Lamar continue to tell the story of the black experience in America; there is hope that they may understand the stories of the injustices of many so that they may affect change – a change that has been needed in our country since its founding. 


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